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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Blanchette: Luke Falk’s decision to return will allow Cougars to take big shot next season

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk will return for his senior season. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

You can think of it two ways:

  • Luke Falk went through his reads, weighed the high risk/high reward options and checked down to something more prudent – coming back to play his senior year at Washington State University. The safety-valve pass to the running back of career decisions.
  • Or he’s airing it out downfield, looking for the game-changer both for him and the Cougars program. You know, letting it rip – the way coach Mike Leach lamented Falk and his teammates didn’t do in their last public appearance two weeks ago.

A wound which, presumably, has scabbed over.

You’d have to think Cougar acolytes draw more comfort and anticipation from their quarterback’s announcement on Wednesday – more of a confirmation, really – than they would have had it been revealed, say, in the fourth quarter of the Holiday Bowl. Oh, there are probably some dissenters in the crowd who like to let it rip all the time – fire the play-caller and change quarterbacks and blame the uniform combination for whatever just went wrong. They have made their determination on Falk in the big picture of Wazzu quarterbacks, and while it might vary from week to week he won’t win them over completely until he does something bold – beat Washington or lead the Cougars to a Pac-12 championship.

Or achieve something even bigger.

So that’s probably what he’d better do.

The wait for Falk to make it official that he wasn’t planning on entering the National Football League draft was hardly breathless. What drama there was amounted to Leach declaring on the eve of the Holiday Bowl that it wouldn’t be his quarterback’s last college game, only to have one of Falk’s family members tweet out a demur – and then delete it – that he hadn’t come to a decision yet.

On Wednesday, he made it sound like his investigation into his NFL draft worthiness amounted to some chit-chat around the dining room table and the odd conversation with “people who are close to me and have been in a similar situation.” He did file papers to get the available feedback, but mostly relied a “gut feeling.”

And, yes, much of that feeling came from the punch the Cougars took to that area from Minnesota right after Christmas.

“We ended the season not the way we wanted to,” Falk acknowledged, “and we’re hungry for more. I want to go out in the right way with a big senior class I came in with.”

It’s interesting to see that big senior class – the Cougs could start eight on defense, half a dozen more on offense – has already persuaded several rankers with nothing else to rank at the moment to issue “way too early” Top 25s for 2017 and include Wazzu. Presumably, at least some of those same folks were more or less suggesting the Cougs were a fraud for the three-game slide that ended a 2016 season when a midseason surge had produced some justifiable giddiness.

Forgiveness remains our finest human quality.

But it’s clear that the Cougs themselves, too, have high expectations – and presumably some urgency, with all those old hands on board.

And it all starts with Falk.

No one was harder on himself in the debriefing after the Holiday Bowl, when he insisted the team needed “to be better at the quarterback position.” His self-critique on leadership was especially withering.

“At some point in the game I need to bring guys together and get my body language better and get me going,” he said, “and then that will rub off on other people.”

This – along with Leach’s assessments at the time – hinted at a certain team fragility that probably shouldn’t be an issue five years into the coach’s tenure. After all, juniors are veterans, too.

Yet, in the end, the real issue is performance. Falk carried a 157.44 quarterback rating through 10 games. Over the last three, it was 108.81 – a result of his completion percentage, yardage and touchdowns all sagging. He was up at the plate against better pitching, yes – and schemes with the personnel to pull it off.

But that’s the whole point of the exercise, no?

Falk has shown enough in his college career already to make him a person of interest to the NFL. He was probably no worse than fourth and likely better among this year’s quarterback crop, but that wasn’t going to put him close to the first round or entice any team to hand him the keys to the car soon, and soon is how the league likes to do business anymore.

Now he has a year to put himself in a better position – and more important locally, do that with the program he’s helped revive. The Cougs have been far more than competitive, but they haven’t been, well, players – not in the major moments. Now the biggest piece is back on a veteran team with a hunger to satisfy.

If they don’t let it rip now, when?